Growing hotties

A little planning, seeding and compost will gift you fresh chilies for summer roasting and rellenos

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Shishito chiles growing in the window at John Lehndorff’s Louisville home. Credit: John Lehndorff

Yes, I know it is only February. Our snowiest month is still ahead.

Veteran gardeners know that Colorado’s sunny spring weather is designed to break their hearts and crush their verdant dreams of tomatoes and flowers. The specter of freeze, hail, wind and drought always looms. 

While it will be months before it is safe to put plants out in the garden, you need to pop some seeds in soil this week. The reward is a bumper crop of chilies this summer and beyond.

To help Boulder County gardeners — experts and novices alike — we consulted with the experts at Growing Gardens, a Boulder nonprofit focused on regenerative urban agriculture and education with classes, camps, a farm stand and food share program. We focused on growing chilies, a tasty crop ideally suited to this climate. 

Starting chile seeds at home

At Growing Gardens, pepper seedlings are started in late February, says Lauren Kelso, the site director for Growing Gardens who oversees the greenhouse and farm operations. There are vital steps to get those seeds to maturity. 

First, find quality seeds.  

“Always start the seeds in small germination trays,”  Kelso says. “They hold a small amount of soil. You want to plant a tiny seed into a relatively small pot.” 

If you start tiny pepper seeds in a big pot, the soil can get too soggy or too dry, Kelso explains.

“For the home gardener, any fine potting soil mix will do,” she says. “Don’t use compost or garden soil.” 

Keep it bright and warm

Next, you must create a nurturing environment. 

“A lot of seedlings, like peppers, need warm temperatures and quite a bit of sunlight to grow healthy and happy,” Kelso says. “Unless you have a really great southern- or western-facing window, you will need artificial growing lights.” 

In order to maintain the right temperature, a special heating pad can be placed underneath the germination trays.

Let’s talk watering

For starting the seeds, the goal is Goldilocks watering — just enough but not too much. Many gardeners use a spray bottle to keep the soil damp. 

“I usually tell people you want it damp but not soggy,” she says. “If you were to squeeze that soil, the water wouldn’t gush out. That’s kind of a good indicator until those seeds germinate.” 

After the birth

There is that expectant time, waiting for the seeds to germinate and break the surface of the soil. “Once the seeds are up, they grow relatively fast,” Kelso says. Resist the urge to transfer that little plant to a bigger pot. 

“You want to let it grow [for] a couple of weeks at least,” she says. “You really want the roots to fill out the soil you’ve already given it before you pop it into something larger.”

Forget the fertilizer

If you use a good quality potting mix, don’t fertilize young plants. 

“You can do some damage by trying to fertilize seedlings when they’re that young,” Kelso says. “The seed itself holds nutrition for that plant — that’s kind of the magic of seeds.”

Wait to move outside

There is an old and mostly false rule in Colorado gardening: Don’t put plants outside until after Mother’s Day. There’s only one problem, according to Kelso: “If you have an uncovered garden, you need to look at the 10-day forecast for bad weather. More importantly for heat-loving crops like chilies is waiting until nighttime temperatures are consistently around 50 degrees.”

Otherwise, plants may get stunted by the cold. Kelso does recommend bringing plants outside to “harden off.” 

“You ease them into all that mother nature has to offer,” she says. “You’re getting new plants not just used to colder temperatures, but wind and hot temperatures, too.”

Always use protection

Hail and wind are facts of life for local gardeners. “Gardeners should consider using a protective spun polyester covering over the garden,” Kelso says. “It saves heartbreak after all that love and energy you put into the plants.”

Chile plants sprouting at Growing Gardens in North Boulder. Credit: Growing Gardens

There are always starter plants 

“If you start seeds, and then something goes really wrong or you go out of town for a couple days and all is lost, there are great nurseries in the area where you can get plants already started,” she says. 

Where to find seeds

Growing Gardens (1630 Hawthorn Ave., Boulder), Harlequin Gardens (4795 26th St., Boulder) and other local farms offer their own local seeds. The Seed House at Boulder’s Masa Seed Foundation Farm offers a selection of hundreds of varieties of seeds for vegetables, berries, grains, herbs and flowers. Visit the Seed House (1367 N. 75th St., Boulder) or order online: masaseedfoundation.org.

Public libraries in Boulder, Louisville, Broomfield and other towns also maintain seed libraries where the public can check out seeds to plant.  

Colorado’s Pueblo Farm & Seed offers an amazing variety of seeds for chilies and locally adapted vegetables. farmdirectseed.com

Take gardening classes

Get hands-on advice from experienced local gardeners. Growing Gardens offers a Front Range Gardening 101 class that covers the essentials. growinggardens.org/classes

Harlequin Gardens offers a large number of sustainable gardening classes this spring and summer: harlequinsgardens.com/what-we-offer/classes

Upgrade your happiness

There’s one more great reason to plant peppers (or anything else) this year.  

CU Boulder professor Jill Litt studied beginning community gardeners in Denver. Litt’s research found that the new gardeners ate more fiber, were more active and experienced a greater decline in perceived stress and anxiety.

I can vouch for that feeling. My sunny home window in Louisville now sports a pair of shishito chile plants that make me happy. After a summer on the patio, the pepper plants are still cranking out big green and red peppers that aren’t too spicy. They will go back outside to my patio garden in the spring.

Jen Lobo – stock.adobe.com

Local Food News: Welcome burrito season

We all know about Taco Tuesday. Who knew there was a Burrito Season? Denver-born Chipotle Mexican Grill is trying to hire 19,000 employees nationally this spring in preparation for “burrito season,” March through May, Chipotle’s busiest time of the year.  

Brush Hollow Winery of Penrose has introduced a wine designed to pair with Taco Tuesday or Burrito Season. Brush Hollow Pueblo Chile Wine is a blend of Palisade Riesling grapes and roasted Pueblo chiles. 

The Boulder County Farmers Markets have produced a useful new guide to local CSAs featuring 25 farms offering produce and food shares this summer. Many CSAs sell out months before the season starts. To avoid tomato disappointment, visit bcfm.org/csa-guide

Plan ahead: The Boulder Farmers Market and Longmont Farmers Market open for the season on April 6. 

Words to Chew On: Mashed or Fried? 

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” — A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles and Kitchen Table Talk on KGNU. Podcasts: kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles